Digital Black and White Photography, Pt. 6

Layer Masks

We covered Layers previously, now let’s dive into Layer Masks, one of the handiest tools in your digital darkroom toolkit.

Let’s start with this colour photo, a still life taken at Benares House Museum, Mississauga, Ontario.

Still Life

Now let’s convert it to black and white on a duplicate layer, but don’t yet flatten the layers. Click on the top B&W layer to make it active then click on the Layer Mask tool (as shown in Photoshop):

lm-icon

and click on the white Layer Mask on the B&W layer to make it active:

lm-bwlayer

Almost there. Check the Background/Foreground Colour Setting to make sure that the foreground colour is set to black and the background colour is set to white.

lm-bwtool

Then select the Brush tool and we’re ready to work some magic on the Layer Mask:

lm-brushtool

Size the circumference of the brush ([ and ] in Photoshop) go to the image on the screen and paint a wavy line through the foreground onion:
lm-1st-stroke

You can see a record of this line on the layer mask:

lm-layer-mask-2

What just happened? What we’ve done is remove the opacity where we brushed the onion, allowing the lower, colour layer, to show through. We’ve done this selectively rather than changing the opacity on the entire B&W layer and if we continue to paint the onion we can create a black and white image with an area of colour in it:
lm-onion
Because it’s a bit finicky to do the edges of the onion, you may have uncovered more colour than you intended (I did). To touch that up, go to the Foreground/Background Colour settings and click the curved arrows, reversing the black and white settings. Then with the foreground colour set to white, you can carefully erase your mistakes and return the opacity to the layer. A Black brush removes opacity; a White brush restores opacity. Hint: for fine work around the edges resize the brush to a tiny brush and increase the size of the image onscreen to 200%. This makes it easier to make a tidy edge.

As you can imagine, the Layer Mask tool opens a large range of possibilities that are exciting for both colour and black and white photography.

Next let’s look at how we can use the Layer Mask for purely black and white work, starting with this image of the Port Credit, Ontario, lighthouse and bridge in the snow:

Lighthouse-colour

Converted to black and white, the image is a bit grey and brooding and doesn’t convey the lightness of a snowy day.

lm-lighthouse1

This image would look better as a higher-key image, so let’s work on a duplicate layer and lighten the image overall:

lm-lighthouse2

This has a better overall feel, but it’s lost a bit of contrast and the lighthouse light is now overexposed. So, with the aid of a Layer Mask on the background copy let’s restore some of the darkness under the bridge as well as taming the lighthouse light.

lm-lighthouse3

I also restored some of the darker shades to the lighthouse door and trim as well as the roof of the adjoining building before flattening the layers.

Note: for even more subtle effects, you can lower the opacity of the brush tool itself, which is normally at 100%. If you wish to restore just a bit more of the underlying image, try setting the brush to 50% or 25% or even lower.

This is a fairly subtle use of the Layer Mask but it demonstrates that you can use masking to do the equivalent of very exact burning and dodging. Experiment with the Layer Mask and Brush until you feel comfortable using them and you’ll have added a powerful, creative option to your post processing.

Next time, how to create vignetting on B&W photos.

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About Gene Wilburn

Gene Wilburn is a writer ~ photographer ~ humanist
This entry was posted in Photography, Photoshop Tutorial, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Digital Black and White Photography, Pt. 6

  1. Dave B says:

    I have long feared photo masking as a realm of cryptic and obscure secrets. Thanks for parting the curtains and contributing to my enlightenment.

    Thinking it was my only option, I followed this tutorial using Gimp 2.8. It works in exactly the same way you demonstrate, except that in order to create a layer mask you have to use the menu system (Layer > Mask > Layer Mask) and then choose White (full opacity).

    Part of the reason for my enduring failure to use masking is that I somewhere picked up the notion that the facility existed only in the full version of Photoshop. In my mind this powerful option was reserved for the pros and absent in Photoshop Elements for the rest of us. After trying the Gimp, however, some perverse impulse led me to search for the ‘circle-in-the-rectangle’ icon you illustrate in PS Elements. Lo and behold, it was there! I don’t know how long it has been part of the PSE arsenal, but since version 10 at least.

    I’m going to be using masking a lot more in the future.

    Nice still life, by the way.

  2. Gene Wilburn says:

    Thanks, Dave. PSE has remarkably good support for layer masking.

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